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Different Doldrums

Fox Gets a Mascot, Showtime Gets Smart—Is This August or What?

But the show's hand-me-down larkiness, via Northern Exposure and the Coen brothers, is a dumber cliché than the pieties it replaced--irony as a convention, not a response. I can't stand Maximum Bob's obese, self-serious white-trash twins, lumbering laconically from disaster to disaster. Their presence helps you notice the quasi-class distinctions between the characters confined to eccentricity and those we're allowed to appreciate as human beings, with Kiersten Warren as Bob's wife on the cusp. Luckily, the affected satire (of what? Nothing that Sonnenfeld knows much about) seems to be fading, and the show that's emerging instead isn't just more engaging. It's funnier, too.

But just when you're thinking you never want to see another offbeat TV show, a pair of series recently slipped onto Showtime make good on the billing. Linc's--producer Tim Reid's reworking of Frank's Place, the similarly brainy sitcom he once starred in--is set in a black-owned D.C. bar whose opinionated regulars argue about current events while acting out variations on them. It's both a slightly over-determined corrective to sillier black sitcoms and a genuine symposium of sorts, demanding an extra concentration that isn't always repaid by Reid's bent for replacing obvious truisms with subtle ones. That said, the talk is frequently shrewd and lively, and Reid's announced goal of refuting stereotypes does lead him to some vivid, mold-breaking characters--gruff Steven Williams as the bar's black-Republican owner, natty Georg Sanford Brown as a minor-league Vernon Jordan. The unacknowledged romance between Linc and Pam Grier as a woman fed up with her philandering white husband is also middle-aged sexiness at its most appealing.

Linc's is followed on Saturdays by Rude Awakening, whose sense of the zeitgeist seems to have overslept: wasn't rehab mania's heyday years ago? But this series about a former TV ingenue (Sherilyn Fenn, up for anything and amazingly vanity-free) to whom staying on the wagon amounts to another form of karaoke is attractively nonjudgmental; there's no suggestion that sobriety improves your character, just your chances. I don't like the way Rain Pryor's character lets the show win points for including a lesbian while treating what lesbians do as screamingly funny by definition, especially when the participants are unattractive--a gambit Maximum Bob also resorts to, with a male couple. Yet the show's affection for L.A.'s also-rans is as informed as it is offhand, and the badinage keeps taking unexpected, goofy tangents. One reason they sound unexpected is that, like Linc's, the series dispenses with a laugh track, which suits me fine. These days, the shows that could use them are the network newscasts: wouldn't you give anything to see Dan Rather's flummoxed face as hyenalike cackling met his every utterance?

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